Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman

Timothy Spall fits Mary Stockley with a new fashion accessory.

Timothy Spall fits Mary Stockley with a new fashion accessory.

(IFC) Timothy Spall, Julie Stevenson, Eddie Marsan, Michael Norton, Tobias Menzies, Clive Francis, Claire Keelan. Directed by Adrian Shergold.

An eye for an eye is what the Old Testament recommends in terms of justice. For two thousand years, Western justice has more or less followed this dictate, particularly when it comes to capital crimes. That begs the question; how are the ones charged with exacting judicial vengeance affected by it?

Albert Pierrepoint (Spall) is a grocer in Depression-era Britain. Somewhat shy, he romances Annie (Stevenson), a clerk at a nearby shop and eventually marries her. Times are hard and he has applied to the British Home Office for a position as hangman in order to bring in some extra income. This isn’t a decision come to lightly – he has several other members of the family who have performed this office. As it turns out, Pierrepoint is remarkably efficient, able to move prisoners from cell to noose to corpse in less than a minute. He quickly becomes one of the most sought-after hangmen in Britain because of it.

This efficiency catches the eye of Field Marshall Montgomery (Francis), who is looking for someone to dispense British justice to Nazi war criminals convicted at Nuremberg. Pierrepoint is enlisted and is flown to Germany, where he is given a somewhat deferential Army assistant (Menzies) to help him with the task of executing dozens of Nazis. When he returns home, he discovers that the press has discovered his identity and he is hailed as a national hero, to his amazement.

With the income from his work in Germany he is able to buy a pub and leave the grocery business. At his pub, he meets James “Tish” Corbett (Marsan), a garrulous man who is able to bring Pierrepoint (who he calls “Tosh”) out of his shell. The two often sing duets at the piano, and they become close friends. Tish, who is separated from his wife, has taken up with a mistress (Keelan) who often derides him publically. While Pierrepoint and his wife are less than enthralled with the mistress, they take solace in having a friend who doesn’t treat him like a pariah for his ghoulish sideline.

As the years pass, so do British attitudes towards capital punishment. Once feted as a national hero, now Pierrepoint is reviled as a murderer. At first, Pierrepoint is puzzled and troubled by this change of attitude. However, his own attitude is called into question when he finds his friend Tish in his docket awaiting execution.

Based on a true story of Britain’s most notorious executioner, the film is rather matter-of-fact and even clinical about the executions that Pierrepoint performs. Spall, best known as Peter Pettigrew in the Harry Potter movies, plays Pierrepoint as a meticulous, almost business-like executioner, well-versed in the physics of hanging and able to tell from height and weight exactly how to set the noose in order to kill the convict cleanly and quickly. His performance is exemplary and reminds us that he is one of Britain’s finest actors with a background in Shakespeare and Mike Leigh films before coming to the Potter universe.

It was also a pleasant surprise to see Stevenson, who I became a big fan of in Truly Madly Deeply back onscreen. She often plays a lot of thankless roles and here she makes good use of her onscreen time as Pierrepoint’s supportive wife, who while aware of his sideline, rarely discusses it with him until it becomes an elephant in the room, leading to one of the movie’s more compelling scenes.

Plainly, the filmmakers have an opinion on capital punishment but this is less about the merits of the death penalty and more on how it affects those who carry it out. Pierrepoint is far from a deranged psychopath; he is a civil servant who does his job efficiently and well. The fact that he, his wife and his friend are all so ordinary and average is what gives the movie its odd poignancy.

WHY RENT THIS: Spall performs marvelously in a role that is deceptively bland. Interesting presentation on how capital punishment affects the executioners.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The clinical portrayal of hangings might be disturbing to sensitive viewers. The ordinariness of the characters can make for occasional moments of boredom.

FAMILY VALUES: The above-mentioned executions are not for children.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The title is a bit misleading. Although Pierrepoint retired in 1964, executions by hanging continued to take place in Britain until 1965.




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